Middle East

Hawks hit by a rhetorical ricochet
By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - By launching a major campaign over the past two months to extend the war on terrorism as far as the Saudi royal family, neo-conservative ideologues who have emerged as the predominant force around President George W Bush appear now to have overplayed their hand.

The result, according to some observers, is that the administration's most ardent hawks, those who consider an invasion of Iraq only the prelude to a radical US-led transformation of the entire Arab world, appear to have lost influence in Bush's inner councils. That, in turn, has offered Secretary of State Colin Powell, who favors a more moderate and far less ambitious approach to both the Mideast and the war on terrorism, some running room.

The most visible sign that the hawks have lost momentum came last week when the White House announced that Bush would seek formal Congressional authorization for an invasion of Iraq. The announcement effectively pulled the rug out from under Vice President Dick Cheney, who only a few days before said that Bush saw no need for Congressional action before a military attack.

Even more stunning was word out of the White House that Bush was now inclined to ask the United Nations Security Council, before taking military action, to demand that Baghdad accept and cooperate with a tough new inspection regime to ensure it was not developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

That not only deeply embarrassed Cheney, who had spent much of a major policy address delivered the previous week arguing that new UN inspections were a waste of valuable time. It also marked a rare victory for Powell, who since September 11 had lost virtually every major internal policy debate to Cheney and the equally hawkish Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld.

While Powell's victory may have been only a temporary detour in Bush's march towards war, or an attempt at "smile diplomacy" designed to reassure worried European and Arab allies that Washington is not as unilateralist or aggressive as they may have believed, some analysts believe the hawks have suffered a major setback. "I think the tide has turned," one foreign-policy veteran of the administration of George Bush Sr, told Inter Press Service on Wednesday. "I think some sanity has been restored to the sandbox."

If so, the credit or blame may go to the neo-conservative forces in and outside the administration that have called for a policy of "regime change" not only in Iraq, but toward all Arab governments considered hostile to Israel, including Saudi Arabia.

In the policy debates over the war on terrorism, both Cheney and Rumsfeld have relied heavily on the arguments of a group of neo-conservative staff and advisers with close ties to the right-wing Likud party in Israel.

They include, among others, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, Cheney's chief of staff I Lewis Libby and a number of policy mavens, especially the chairman of Rumsfeld's Defense Policy Board (DPB), Richard Perle, based at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a neo-conservative think tank that also includes Cheney's spouse, Lynne.

Perle and AEI's top Mideast-policy "scholars", former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer Reuel Marc Gerecht, Michael Ledeen and Michael Rubin (just hired by the Pentagon to plan for a post-Saddam Hussein government in Baghdad), along with former CIA director James Woolsey, have been at the heart of a well-orchestrated campaign.

Visible mainly on the editorial and op-ed pages of the right-wing Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard, it lobbied to extend the war on al-Qaeda and the Taliban to virtually the entire Arab Middle East, first through a US invasion of Iraq (which the same group has insisted has ties to al-Qaeda and may have been behind last year's September 11 attacks on New York and Washington), and then through US-backed popular insurrections in Iran and Syria.

"The War on Terror Won't End in Baghdad" was the title of a typical piece by Ledeen that appeared in the Journal last week. "This war cannot be limited to national theaters," he wrote; "we face a regional challenge and must respond accordingly."

The same group - along with like-minded associates in the administration and other think tanks - has depicted Saudi Arabia, and especially its Wahhabi clergy, as the fount of global Islamist extremism and terror. They have repeated endlessly that, of the 19 skyjackers who slammed airliners into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon one year ago, 15 were from Saudi Arabia.

While these forces have been pressing that argument since late last year, it made headlines in August after a DPB member leaked details of a secret briefing arranged by Perle to the board, given July 10 by Laurent Murawiec, a French academic on temporary assignment at the Rand Corporation in Washington.

Murawiec described Saudi Arabia as "the kernel of evil, the prime mover, the most dangerous opponent" in the Middle East and called for "taking the Saudi out of Arabia". The leak created a sensation, not only infuriating the Saudis who had already been complaining bitterly about the media campaign against them; it also appears to have mobilized much of the foreign policy establishment, particularly those sectors linked to major US oil corporations with huge interests in Saudi Arabia.

The administration immediately disavowed Murawiec's views, and Bush, then on vacation at his Texas ranch, invited Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar for a high-profile visit. Rand effectively fired Murawiec, while Perle insisted that he had no idea what Murawiec would say in advance, an assertion met with general disbelief.

It was shortly afterwards that Bush Sr's national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, as well as his secretary of state James Baker, a long-time protector of Big Oil, published columns gravely warning against the administration's unilateralist course on Iraq.

In an even more pointed Washington Post op-ed, former president Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, argued that "public support should not be generated by fear-mongering or demagogy, with some of it encouraged by parties with a strategic interest in fostering American-Arab hostility".

"Particularly disturbing in that regard," he went on, "has been the news report that some members of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board have been pushing, in addition to war with Iraq, a confrontation in US-Saudi Arabian relations."

Henry Kissinger, who had been present at the Rand presentation, reportedly was the only person in the room to speak in defense of the Saudi regime, pointing out the practical problems with making Saudi Arabia an enemy and also suggesting that perhaps Saudi motivations were less black and white than Murawiec might believe.

But it was none other than the president's father who made it clear early this week that the neo-conservative campaign against the Arab world in general and Saudi Arabia in particular had gone much too far.

In an interview with NBC-TV Monday that studiously avoided policy issues, the former president predicted that anti-American sentiment in the Arab world will pass but then went on to say - in an apparent reference to the Wall Street Journal, which has acted as the main mouthpiece for the public neo-conservative campaign over the past six months, "What I don't like is demonizing Saudi Arabia, for example, as we see some of the great national newspapers doing. I don't like that. It's not true. They're not enemies of ours. And for them to come under that kind of criticism, I think it's ridiculous."

(Inter Press Service)

Sep 13, 2002

Charge on Baghdad, cry the Chicken Hawks (Sep 12, '02)

Baghdad? What? whisper the Ostriches (Sep 12, '02)

Invading Iraq, no matter the cost  (Sep 11, '02)

US and the triumph of unilateralism  (Sep 10, '02)


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